Google’s lab for futuristic "moonshot" projects is now bringing one of its craziest ideas—delivering Internet to the developing world via enormous balloons that drift in the sky—much closer to reality.
Project Loon, as the research is dubbed, has been in development at Google’s X division since 2012 (X is now spun off as part of Alphabet, Google's larger umbrella company). According to X director Astro Teller (read Fast Company's profile of him here), who gave a TED talk in Vancouver on Monday, the latest prototypes have been durable enough to travel the world 19 times over in 187 days and accurate enough to accurately navigate in the winds to within 500 meters of a specific point from 20,000 kilometers away. Google is now in discussions with telecommunications carriers around the world, Teller says, and plans to fly over Indonesia in "real service testing" this year.
The X team has dealt with a number of challenges in developing Loon. Using global wind data and algorithms, it had to develop a balloon network that could surf the upper atmosphere’s changing winds to navigate to particular Wi-Fi service areas. It had to make sure it get the Wi-Fi signal all the way to devices on the ground, at a high enough bandwidth to deliver access to large populations at fast speeds—Loon is now up to 15 megabits per second, says Teller, enough to stream video. The team tried and busted many different balloon designs to make it work, but he says that none of these technical challenge have been enough to kill the project yet.
"We have lots more to do in terms of fine-tuning the system and reducing costs," says Teller, but "our balloons today are doing pretty much everything a complete system needs to do."
Through a variety of technologies and companies, Teller predicts that most of the world’s 7 billion people will have fast Internet within 5 to 10 years. "It will change the world in ways we can't possibly imagine," he says.